Amelia Opie (1769-1853) was a well-regarded poet and novelist in her time. We do not find her work very readable today, but in the early nineteenth century her writing was very much the flavour of the time. The book, Poems by Mrs Opie, was published in London and had reached six editions by the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century – and I have no reason to believe there were not further editions. It makes me think what a great poet Wordsworth was; he was writing at the same time, but never fell into the trap of writing in a fashionable style. If he had done so his verse would be as unreadable today as Amelia Opie’s is. It would have been maudlin and dull like hers.
Death and despair are favourite themes of Amelia’s. Even the frontispiece of the poetry book has a dark picture of a maiden walking in a graveyard. Ah! Setting sun, how chang’d I seem!/ I to thy rays prefer deep gloom/ Since now alas! I see them beam/ Upon my Henry’s lonely tomb reads the caption. Her verse has a pervasive sadness. Even one of her better poetic efforts, this Elegiac Song, is coloured by notions of betrayal and heartbreak. It is written to the Welsh tune of Ar Hyd Y Nos, better known to the English as the hymn tune All Through the Night.
HERE beneath this willow sleepeth Poor Mary Anne,….
One whom all the village weepeth; Poor Mary Anne!
He she loved her passion slighted, Breaking all the vows he’d plighted;
Therefore life no more delighted Poor Mary Anne!
Pale thy cheek grew, where thy lover, Poor Mary Anne!
Once could winning charms discover;…. Poor Mary Anne!
Dim those eyes, so sweetly speaking When true love’s expression seeking;….
Oh! we saw thy heart was breaking, Poor Mary Anne!
Like a rose we saw thee wither, Poor Mary Anne!….
Soon, a corpse, we brought thee hither, Poor Mary Anne!
Now, our evening pastime flying, We, in heartfelt sorrow vying,
Seek this willow,….softly sighing ‘ Poor Mary Anne!’
So much for poor Mary Anne. I will now turn to Costessey and her poem about the village. We are talking of 200 years ago, and the correct way of spelling Costessey then was COSSEY – as it has been spoken for well over 500 years. The new way of spelling the word, which is very close to the original spelling in the Domesday Book – Costeseia – is a result of Victorian antiquarianism. Other villages which had been similarly shortened since Norman times got the same treatment, and in quite a few cases this extended to the pronunciation too. So Poringland for example was spelt and spoken as Porland; when the antiquarians got to work on this village it became both written and spoken as Poringland, but when they tried the same thing on Costessey the locals rebelled and continued to pronounce it Cossey. All these considerations were years in the future, probly in Queen Victoria’s reign, so to Amelia Opie it was still known as Cossey and spelt that way too..
Amelia Alderson – her maiden name – was the daughter of a Norwich physician. It was in 1771 that the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital had been opened; the original building was still in use until the early years of the 21st century, although it had been much extended. She married the Cornish born portrait artist John Opie in 1798 and his portrait of his wife appears at the top of this page. They lived in London, where he encouraged her in her literary career. When her husband died after 9 years of marriage she returned to Norwich.
The Jerningham family who had lived in Costessey for generations and who were shortly to become the Earls of Stafford, when they were successful in reviving the title in the 1820s. They were an old Catholic family who had remained loyal to their faith throughout the Reformation and the following centuries of East Anglian Puritanism. It is in this Protestant tradition we must place Amelia Opie herself, who became a Quaker in 1825. But this religious divide makes no appearance in the poem. Sir William Jerningham was an agreeable host and a good companion; he died in 1809.There is much more in the same vein, but you get the picture. In this instance is is not gloom and despairv that moves the reader but an equally unrealistic picture of peace and tranquility. It is a pastoral scene, and I cannot illustrate it better than by this picture postcard of a Costessey shepherd and his flock. This view was taken about a hundred years ago and a similar period time after Amelia Opie’s poem was written. A pony (or is it a donkey?) and cart and a flock of sheep could have been seen on the gently sloping Norfolk hills at any time in the three to four hundred years before 1912. Earlier than that you might have had to substitute an ox cart. How different is today’s mechanised agricultural scene! Tractors and trailers have replaced the horse and cart and the sheep are kept in by electric fences. The photograph was taken by Frank Welch, Sub-postmaster of Costessey, whose son Barney I knew well.
But all was not a timeless rustic idyll, in spite of Opie’s poem. Even as Amelia Opie was writing of all the charms that “glow around” this was also a period of rapid industrial change. Just a mile down the road at Taverham the mill was making paper by the new Fourdrinier paper machine. Daily consignments of finished paper were taken through the village to be stored at Simon Wilkin’s Costessey mill. The workers at the mill toiled away seven days a week, i.e. there was even a Sunday shift. They had no thought of the “Soft smiling scene… adorned by Taste”. Rather they would shortly riot against these intolerable changes in working practices that were grinding the faces of the poor into the ground and leaving them with less and less income from those same fields.